Sunday, February 4, 2018

Howard Jones interview

photo: David Conn
The mark of a true musician is the ability to command attention during an acoustic performance.

“I always encourage young artists that I’m mentoring [about how] you have to be able to hold a room on your own - without lights, production, a big band, a brass section or an orchestra - if you’re going to go somewhere,” said Howard Jones, in a phone interview from his home in Sommerset, England. “If you’re comfortable with it, then you’ll go far.”

The veteran synth-pop singer/keyboardist is currently doing Solo – The Songs and the Stories, an extensive American tour of smaller-than-usual venues. 

“I like to play in a stripped-down way, with piano and singing, every couple of years,” Jones, 62, said. “I’ve got about 50 songs worked up that I can draw on. It’s the complete opposite of my band shows and really intimate. I talk a lot. I get a chance to show the songwriter side of me. I love it.”

Jones came to prominence during the New Wave era with the jaunty “New Song” in 1983, the first of nine top 20 singles in his native U.K. Two years later, Jones appeared at Live Aid. Here in SoCal, KROQ was an early supporter and multiple top 40 U.S. pop hits including “No One is to Blame,” “Things Can Only Get Better” (from the U.S. platinum seller “Dream Into Action”), “Everlasting Love,” “You Know I Love You…Don’t You?” “What is Love?” and “Lift Me Up,” stretched into the early ‘90s.

Many of the life-affirming tunes were originally composed on piano, so this tour will give fans insight into how they were created.

“I can play them in any sort of style,” said Jones. “Depending on the mood I’m in, I can give them all a bit of a twist if I want. It’s a fabulous freedom to have as a musician.”

In 2015, Jones released “Engage” on CD+DVD via the self-run D-TOX record label.

The unique multi-media project was a way for him to “challenge myself to do something different that combined all different types of music and art forms that I love – classical, film, contemporary dance, ballet. I threw it all into the mix. It was really an ambitious project for me. I was pleased with the result.”

Due to the big production, Jones only played “Engage” a few times in select cities. At several points in the DVD, inspirational quotes by Einstein, Kierkegaard and more stream across a screen behind him.

“It was a thread running through every track,” Jones explained. “I’ve always been very interested in philosophy and in the study of how to live your life in the best way.”

One “Engage” selection, the EDM-leaning “The Human Touch,” has been included in recent live sets and “it always goes down a storm.”

Jones is currently working on a new studio album and so far has completed “five tracks I’m very happy with. I’m doing a collaboration with [electronic act] BT. That’s going very well. I hope we’ll be able to include that.”

Meanwhile, Jones will soon be heard on the soundtrack to the upcoming animated film “Animal Crackers.” He describes the spirited “We’re in This Together” as a “funky track. I was lucky enough to get Michael Buble’s eight-piece horn section on it.”

Hear a sample here: 

Two years ago, Jones also contributed a song for “Fly – Songs Inspired by the film Eddie the Eagle.”

“I really enjoy working with a director when he points me to a place in the film and says, ‘I really want a song here and it needs to relate to the storyline,’” said the musician.

Last fall, Jones curated a Spotify playlist of old and new favorites. Lately, the streaming service has found him “going back and listening to a whole chunk of an artist’s career and really getting to know it. I discovered that I actually like Van Morrison because of Spotify; Ella Fitzgerald, as well. There’s a new album of her with the London Symphony Orchestra [‘Someone to Watch Over Me’]. They took her voice from the original recordings and did new arrangements. Absolutely exquisite. It’s all about educating oneself and letting go of the prejudices.”

As for the rising popularity of streaming over physical album purchases, Jones believes “if everyone got on board, it would be a great thing for artists because they’d be able to make a decent living, [but] it’s not really sustaining young artists and people in the middle enough to stop people from going to other industries. We really need to sort that out. Otherwise, it’s going to be just catalog. And catalog music is still bigger than new music. That’s terrible. It shouldn’t be that way.”

My article originally appeared in various Southern California News Group publications.

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